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Stress in the Workplace


Stress is sadly a dominant factor in many of our lives, with our work a major contributory factor in that, with many parts of our working life enough to have us tearing our hair out (or trichotillomania’ing if you want the medical term).

Previous studies have suggested that our status plays a major role in how stressed we feel at work.

A classic example are the Whitehall studies.  They looked at the health of those working in the civil service, and found that rank was strongly correlated with health.  In particular, the higher ones rank in the civil service, the lower ones mortality rate.

It’s a point of view that’s supported by a recent Stanford study that suggested that higher rank was associated with both lower levels of stress hormones and less anxiety.

“We live as social beings in a stratified society,” says James Gross, a Stanford University psychology professor.“It’s our relative status in a group that disproportionately influences our happiness and well-being.”

The study looked at both cortisol measurements (a stress hormone) and self-reported anxiety levels in high ranking public sector officials enrolled in a Harvard leadership program.

They found that there was a clear correlation between the rank of the manager and their level of stress and anxiety.  The higher the position, the lower the stress.

They suggest that the reason for this lower level of stress was directly down to the level of control the individuals had over their work environment.  The connection between power and tranquility was dependent on the total number of subordinates a leader had and on the degree of authority or autonomy a job conferred.

It’s possible, in other words, that the feeling of being in charge of one’s own life more than makes up for the greater amount of responsibility that accompanies higher rungs on the social ladder.

Another study, published by researchers from Pennsylvania State University suggests it may not be quite so simple however.  They tested the cortisol levels of participants whilst at work and at home, and found that the stress hormone was actually less prevalent when they were at work than when they were at home.

Rather than being a source of stress, the study suggests that for many people, the workplace is somewhere they can go to get away from the troubles of life.

“The fact that people’s stress levels go down when they are at work, I don’t think it means that they don’t like their homes or their kids,’’ said Sarah Damaske, an assistant professor of labor and employment relations at Penn State and the study’s lead author. “I think it suggests that there is something about work that is good for you. Being in the moment, focusing on a task, completing that task, socializing with your co-workers — all of these are beneficial and that’s part of what’s lowering your stress level.’’

Interestingly, this trend was more evident in women than men, with the fairer sex proving happier at work than they were at home, whilst with men it was the reverse.  What’s more, the women reported higher absolute levels of happiness at work than their male colleagues.

“It speaks to something that we’ve long known – women have more to do at home when they come home at the end of a workday,” said Dr. Damaske. “They have less leisure time. There is all this extra stuff to be done, that second shift.”


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